Amid the wave of strikes currently breaking across the UK is an extensive programme of industrial action by university staff. As with transport, health service, postal and other strike action that has been going on over the last few months, the effects of rapid inflation on the cost of living is a major factor—but there are also ongoing disputes over pensions which have been rumbling on for years, plus there are very long-term issues around job security.
So, while pay is only part of the picture, this seems like a good time to revisit the analysis I did almost ten years ago, in the throes of another series of strikes. As before, I have collated and plotted my individual historical pay data, adjusted for the consumer price index measure of inflation, alongside average earnings data from the wider economy. The reference point is November 2009, when I started in my faculty position as a Lecturer (Assistant Professor); I was promoted to Associate Professor in 2021.
There are some noticeable steps in my salary data, generally occurring in August each year. Up to 2015 these are automatic increments, as I moved up the standard pay spine within the Lecturer grade, a time-limited process that is supposed to recognise the accumulation of experience in one's role. There are then smaller annual steps, every year except 2020, which reflect the universities' regular settlements with the unions. In 2021 there is the biggest jump, due to my promotion (indicated with a dashed vertical line in the plot), and there's another increment in 2022—but both of these are rapidly eroded by inflation.
Generally, my real-terms pay stayed fairly stable until making some positive progress in 2014–2016, due to a period of very low inflation, and then slipping back a bit as I stopped receiving increments. (Many other long-serving staff will be or have been in this position.) Just before my promotion I was effectively earning the same as in 2014, and although the promotion itself produced a boost, this was essentially cancelled out over the following year as inflation climbed steeply. In December 2022 my real-terms pay was 8.4% higher than when I first started as faculty 13 years before, but lower than the same month in 2015—and if I hadn't been promoted it would now be 2.8% lower than my starting salary. With inflation still hovering around 10%, it will decline further, and quickly. "London weighting", a fixed supplement paid to London-based university staff, has seen a welcome boost recently, but this doesn't change the overall picture.
By comparison, national average wages followed a U-shape between 2009 and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, losing 6–7% of their value before gradually recovering, albeit with the public sector doing somewhat worse than the economy as a whole for much of that time. Since then, however, there has been a sharp divergence: average inflation-adjusted pay for all sectors dropped, in aggregate, by 1.0% between November 2009 and November 2022, but across the public sector the fall was a hefty 8.5%.
Sector-wide pay isn't comparable to an individual's, of course. It covers the whole workforce, at all levels of seniority and experience, and people join and leave all the time. But it is worth considering the bigger and smaller pictures together. I was lucky to be promoted when I was, because it has ended up softening the cost-of-living blow somewhat, but many will not have had the benefit of this timing or opportunity, and it's not hard to see why there are so many pay disputes happening right now.